A deep dive into the journey of the winner of the 2020 Entrepreneurship World Cup.
Over five percent of the global population, that is, 432 million adults and 34 million children, suffer from hearing loss. One of the biggest problems that this section of society faces is the lack of hearing implements. Although 80% of those with hearing loss live in developing and underdeveloped countries, most of the world’s cochlear implants are consumed by developed countries.
To help more people access hearing implements, South Korean startup TODOC, headed by CEO Abraham Kyousik Min, devotes itself to making hearing aids that are cheaper, more user-friendly and comfortable. The company’s efforts received worldwide attention when it won the Entrepreneurship World Cup (EWC) in 2021. Let’s learn a little more about the company, its products and its journey through EWC.
Ever since he was pursuing his graduate degree from Seoul University, Min has been fascinated with neural interface technology. With that in mind, he decided to create a product specifically for those who cannot afford cochlear implant surgery because it is too expensive.
TODOC’s manufacturing processes cost less than one-tenth of what it takes to produce a typical hearing implement. Min shares, “Existing cochlear implants have 12 to 24 contacts and are worth more than US$20,000. Some companies provide their cochlear implants at a cheaper price to national tender.” He also added that most of the implants on the market end up being pricey because they use a manual manufacturing process, whereas TODOC has adopted automated manufacturing process technology to lower production costs.
TODOC creates three wearable implements—cochlear implants Sullivan (which helps those with hearing loss), neuromodulators Olius (which helps people manage mental health conditions) and neurostimulation device NerveOn (which prevents damage to nerve cells).
The cochlear implant, Sullivan, provides a sense of sound to people with severe to total hearing loss by delivering electrical stimulation to the hearing nerve in the cochlea. It consists of an internal pulse generator that is surgically implanted beneath the skin and a wearable sound processor. What makes Sullivan different from its competitors is that, unlike conventional cochlear implants, in which the electrodes and wires are manually connected, TODOC uses a laser micromachining technique. This speeds up production and cuts down costs by removing several steps from the manufacturing process.
The other two devices that the company has created fall under the category of electrical neural interfaces. Olius is an external device that is worn on the outer ear and gives electrical stimulation. This affects neural networks between the brain and internal organs. The company expects this to be helpful to people with various mental and physical health conditions, such as anxiety, insomnia and headaches. Min says that these would be released first not as a medical device but as a healthcare device. He added, “We begin clinical trials for reducing the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, migraine and memory deterioration in elders.” The company later plans on getting approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to release the products as medical devices.
Learnings from EWC
The EWC is a startup competition that gives companies a platform to not only pitch their products and ideas but also access to a worldwide network of entrepreneurs to learn from. The competition consists of acceleration programs and competitions through which companies get shortlisted in various stages. Since its conception in 2019, the EWC has had 300,000 participants from across 200 countries worldwide.
As the winner of the EWC 2021, Min had a lot to say about TODOC’s journey through the competition. “I remember the invitation email [to join EWC 2021] from Jumpstart Media. It was on June 29, 2021. When I first saw the email, I couldn’t believe that such a huge competition existed,” Min shared. The company was excited to get an opportunity to present its products on a global stage.
Min explained that the mentoring and seminars on business development, legal issues and pitching provided by the EWC were extremely beneficial for TODOC. He details how the EWC helped them gain exposure and investments from outside of Korea. “I started to see the competition not just as a pitching competition but business acceleration,” he added.
Soon after winning the competition, TODOC went in for a Series B funding round. Min expressed that participating in the EWC exposed him and his team to expansion opportunities in the Middle East. He believes that TODOC can penetrate “Middle Eastern countries based in Saudi Arabia as an alumnus of EWC 2021 and can make the Middle East one of the major markets” for their products.
Min is optimistic that the company is going to grow in the time to come. With only the clinical trial left for Sullivan, TODOC is all set to take over the market for hearing implements.
Header image courtesy of TODOC’s Blog